Sheila Bender is one of those writers I've read off and on for years, mostly for her sound advice on the process of writing. I discovered A Year in the Life soon after the birth of my second child and it influenced the final edit of my MA thesis. Through her passion for poetry and essay, Sheila transmits a sense of capability and honor to the young writer - she believes that if a person wishes to write, then they have what it takes to not only begin but to succeed.
I was excited to read earlier this year about her essay contest and sent three pieces off in short measure. I was overjoyed to hear from her a few weeks later - Becoming a Woman of Color had won first prize!
"Becoming" is a piece that my close readers have enjoyed, but one that never seemed to quite fit the journals to which I submitted it. The form is a non-traditional essay written second person, and the piece was often criticized in workshop because of this. Male readers didn't feel comfortable being asked to read from a woman's point of view, folk-not-of-color didn't want to inhabit the ambivalent space between privilege and prejudice. I tried changing it several times to make it more 'accessible' only to return to the voice of it's original.
"Becoming a Woman of Color" by Rebecca Mabanglo-Mayor offers a satisfying and moving read. A lyric essay in structure, it is built in sections that each begin with a command: Imagine, Remember, Picture. The symmetry between beginning and ending the essay with the word imagine and the repeated commands of remember and picture sandwiched between the opening and closing of the essay carry both writer and reader through a rewarding emotional journey.
I am /so/ grateful that she responded so positively to the piece and grateful that she chose it as the winning entry for her contest. She and her co-publisher Kurt VanderSluis have published Becoming a Woman of Color in her online journal http://writingitreal.com/.
As part of my prize, Sheila looked over one of the other two essays I submitted. She gave me a very frank assessment which showed I still have far to go with my work. There were technical difficulties to the piece but what was most helpful to me was that she contrasted that piece with "Becoming." I learned that when I trust my voice, instead of trying to make a piece into what I think others will respond to, I do /much/ better. It's something I've read time and again in books on writing and something I've heard time and again from veteran writers.
The difference with Sheila, though, is that she /showed/ me what that meant for my own writing and as any writer will tell you Show Don't Tell is the first and last rule of good writing and good critique.